Papal trail arrives at crossroads for RC schools

17th September 2010 at 01:00
Pontiff may find that Catholicism's attraction in education is as much about ethos as faith

In May, 1982, Catholic headteachers in Scotland were "alarmed" by the implications of falling rolls and the lack of "Catholicity" and "appropriate spiritual awareness" in the young people leaving Catholic schools.

The TESS's report from the then "conference of Catholic headteachers" came only a few weeks before the first papal visit to Scotland - that of Pope John Paul II.

Nearly 30 years on, Pope Benedict XVI finds Scottish Catholic education grappling with similar problems, and some new challenges.

Jim Conroy, former dean of education at Glasgow University, believes Catholicism was on the rise in 1982. It might have been regarded as "slightly quirky" but it was not unfashionable. "Now it is deeply unfashionable," he says.

For that, blame a growing secularisation in Britain - some would say that sections of Scottish society are not merely religiously indifferent but hostile to religious institutions. Add in the sex abuse scandals which have dogged the Catholic Church in various countries - although Scotland has largely escaped - and it is clear why the Catholic Church is following the Church of Scotland in terms of dwindling congregations.

Yet many affirm that the place of Catholic education is more secure now than 28 years ago. Steven McKinney, senior lecturer in creativity, culture and faith at Glasgow University, believes there has been more support for Catholic schools in the past 10-15 years than before, thanks to statements from former First Minister Jack McConnell and the current incumbent, Alex Salmond.

Yet Catholic schools have changed, largely as a result of the much higher number of pupils of other faiths and no faith who choose to attend them. It is widely acknowledged that in terms of attainment, the Catholic sector "punches above its weight" - a phenomenon usually attributed to the Catholic schools' ethos.

Michael McGrath, director of the Scottish Catholic Education Service, says: "The mysterious quality sometimes referred to as `Catholic ethos' is built on nurtured relationships and a shared commitment to show love for all, recognising that, when relationships break down, we must repair the damage, make amends and show compassion and forgiveness, as Jesus taught."

Some put it more simply, arguing that whether of the Catholic faith or not, parents who send their children to a denominational school make a positive choice to do so, and are thus buying into the system. There is also a perception that Catholic schools are more likely to share the same vision, particularly if hit by a crisis.

Where, then, does the denominational sector now draw its pupils from? Practising Catholics are in the minority in most RC schools; some parents send their children to a Catholic school for "tribal" reasons - they may no longer be practising Catholics, but they want to follow a family tradition; some are attracted to successful schools - the row over redrawing the catchment of St Ninian's High in Giffnock is a perfect example; some Muslim families prefer Catholic schools because they have a faith rather than no faith; and numbers have been boosted by the influx in recent years of families from Eastern Europe (Polish families have boosted Catholic Church membership, although some have returned home for economic reasons, and many Roma families are also Catholic).

For Liz Dornan, chair of the Catholic Headteachers' Association for Primaries in Scotland, and her secondary counterpart, Laurie Byrne, chair of the Catholic Headteachers' Association in Scotland, the very fact that a growing number of non-Catholic children attend denominational schools is an endorsement of Catholic education.

"More people from other faiths have chosen to send their children to Catholic schools, because they share our values and not because they wish to dilute them," says Mr Byrne, head of St Maurice's High in Cumbernauld. "I believe Catholic schools have a stronger sense of what it means to be Catholic now than 30 years ago."

But if the schools have a stronger sense of their own identity, fewer pupils - and teachers - have a strong sense of what it is to be Catholic.

One Catholic commentator told The TESS that some ostensibly Catholic pupils entering P1 were having to be taught how to make the sign of the cross and say basic prayers. "They have never been to mass - so what are they doing in a Catholic school?" he asked.

And after 13 years of Catholic education, despite the strong school ethos, very few school leavers are becoming church members and practising the faith.

He estimates that, at most, 10 per cent of young people leave Catholic schools as practising Catholics. This poor conversion rate he blames in part on a lack of "plug in" at home and in the parish.

The fact that Catholic schools are not recruiting sufficient numbers of "faith-living exemplar" Catholics who will act as role models for their pupils is another factor, the commentator says. Some Catholic priests also feel intimidated into granting Church "approval" for applicants who are not practising Catholics, he adds.

Father John Bollan, whose role at Glasgow University is the religious education and moral and spiritual development of student teachers, acknowledges that students come from a broad spectrum in terms of their own faith.

"Some come from backgrounds where their grandparents are the ones involved in practising faith and their parents are not. My approach is to get them all to the same end point of personal faith and spiritual development."

He believes the development of RE as a subject in recent years means students should now know what the Catholic Church teaches.

"The tragedy for people of my generation is that a lot of RE had become very woolly, unfocused and experiential," says Father Bollan.

Indeed, many believe that RE for Roman Catholic pupils - the only part of Curriculum for Excellence that is not common to all pupils - has become more catechised in nature. Mrs Dornan believes that the aims of CfE - to produce good citizens - fit naturally with the Catholic ethos.

A number of challenges remain for Catholic education in Scotland in the next 30 years. The problem of recruiting quality school leaders is well known and is a challenge for education in general. But there is a particular problem finding Catholic school leaders in some parts of the country, although there are various programmes involving Glasgow University aimed at tackling this.

The economic crisis and looming cuts to benefits will also tip more families into poverty, Dr McKinney believes, and that will have a significant impact on schools, given the proven link between educational attainment and poverty.

Council budget cuts also threaten the existence of Catholic schools, warns Mr McGrath, who points to the withdrawal of transport subsidies promised to parents to help them swallow the bitter pill of school mergers. His is one of the growing clamour of voices calling for a reduction of the 32 education authorities in order to save money and protect "frontline services".

It would be ironic if the greatest threat to Catholic education came, not from what might be happening in the temples, but from the money-changers outside them.


Every year, 200 pupils gain entry to St Margaret's Academy in Livingston, three-quarters of whom are baptised Catholics from its six local primaries.

After they have secured places, non-baptised children from associated schools who have siblings here are prioritised. But every year, around 50 who apply to the school fail to get in. To cope with demand, St Margaret's, opened in 1994, is being extended and its capacity increased to 1,300.

Head James Cameron said: "There are schools that are not Catholic which are just as popular as St Margaret's, but I believe it's not just our successful track record in things like examination results and HMIE reports that parents appreciate.

"There is something about our value system that is attractive to parents, even if they are not Catholic. You sense that it's different and it's not just the religious icons, the crucifixes on the wall or the fact we start every day with a prayer. The key to it is the respect for the dignity of each person."

There had been a "sea change" in the attitude of politicians and the inspectorate in recent years, Mr Cameron believes: "They are more willing to celebrate and recognise the success of Catholic schools."

As a result, secular education was starting to borrow from Catholic education, he says, with more non-denominational schools emphasising the importance of a positive ethos, taking part in charity work and engaging with their communities.

"They are recognising there are things that have been successful in Catholic schools others can learn from and develop," he added.

Yet Mr Cameron admits there was a crisis of faith among pupils: "For many young people, the school has become their church."

But the church's resources were stretched and, while a local priest often served as primary school chaplain, that presence was not possible in many secondaries.

St Margaret's has a chaplaincy team, made up mainly of teachers and led by RE teacher and school counsellor John Lindsay. It arranges for local clergy to visit on feast days or to have mass with the pupils. But they also lead services and encourage pupils to do the same.

Non-Catholics were represented on the chaplaincy team; out of 90 teaching staff at St Margaret's, 50-60 per cent were Catholic. Mr Cameron said that, even if it were possible to staff the school exclusively with Catholic teachers, he would not do so.

"I always say this is a Catholic school, not a school for Catholics, to emphasise its inclusiveness," he says.

Some 150 pupils and staff from the school were due to attend yesterday's papal mass in Glasgow.

Emma Seith


- No of RC schools: 389 (400+ in 1982) out of 2,867

- No of other faith schools: 1 Jewish, 3 Episcopalian

- No of RC pupils: 120,000 out of 707,247

- Support for Catholic schools: 52 per cent of Scots support the right of Catholic parents to send their children to an RC school

- Catholic population: 803,700 (814,400 in 1982)

- Attendance at Mass: 393,800 - or 49 per cent - go at least once a month

- Catholic baptisms: 8,270 (13,669 in 1982)

- Number of priests: 740 (1,122 in 1982)

Number of sisters: 516 (1,201 in 1982)

Priests in training: 33 (159 in 1982)

Sources: Scottish Government statistics, 2009; Poll commissioned by Catholic church, 2002; 2001 census Scottish Catholic Media Office; Catholic Directory of Scotland. The most recent figures are for 2008-09, unless otherwise stated.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today